MAGGIE CLARK

Writer. Student. Victorian Lit Scholar. Baker of a Mean Pie.

Two Paths to Short-Story Publication

This is an amusing post for me, because I haven’t submitted much writing this year (The Year In Which I Will Finish My PhD), and in consequence, I only have one poetry acceptance under my belt for 2016.

Nevertheless, I have enough publication credits for short stories to feel comfortable offering some strong suggestions to those seeking to publish their fiction in magazines.

I’m offering these suggestions because I know the sting of rejection–a normal part of the process at any stage of authorial development–and I hate to see others setting themselves up for more rejection than necessary.

In my experience, there are two paths to publication in magazines. Well, three if you count the rigged contests for friends (which I have seen, and which suck)–but two for us regular folk, playing the game with some measure of integrity:

  1. You write the story you love, and after, submit it to magazines that seem a close stylistic fit; or
  2. You study the magazines you love to read, and you write a story you love to match.

There are pros and cons to both positions.

If you take the first approach, finding the right magazine for your story means being flexible with other factors–like whether the magazine is a pro-rated publication, or well-established. If you take the first approach, you keep submitting that story to as many places as possible, however little they might pay or promote your work, until someone believes in your vision.

If you take the second approach, you are writing for a specific market, with the knowledge that there will be maybe a couple other markets that fit the story if/when the first market rejects your work. Likely as not, the market you’re targeting is pro-rated and highly reputable, so it’s a great boon if you get in–but at much higher risk of binning your stories, if you do not.

I have taken the second approach far more often than the first. As such, I get rejected a great deal. I run out of markets a great deal, too, and then have to bin stories I love. Nevertheless, the rewards (when I write a story that gets accepted by my target market) have made all the preceding hardships worthwhile.

I used to take the first approach, but quickly discovered secondary cons to the story-first approach. In particular, whenever I’ve been accepted by smaller publications, I’ve risked the publication folding before releasing my story (it happens!), or the editors getting squirrelly about payment (also a sad reality). I’ve also discovered editors who were far more likely to want to rewrite my stories–and not just for legitimate incoherencies in the text, but because of extremely persnickety matters of personal preference and vocabulary.

Good editors–editors who take only the work they truly believe in, and respect the author in the process–certainly exist at all levels of the publishing world, but in my experience your odds of finding a good editor are much higher among the pro- and semi-pro ‘zines. Because I wanted to work for and with professionals, I moved to the second option. I read pro- and semi-pro magazines avidly, decided which ones I liked, and started keeping specific publications in mind from the first planning stages of future stories.

Now, I have laugh (or I’d cry) at how many people get upset when I tell them that I write a story with a specific publication in mind. First of all, it’s my writing, so it’s my choice. Full stop.

But secondly, there is no rigid binary here: It’s not a choice between “writing the story I love” and “writing the story that will sell.” Sometimes I write a story I love that doesn’t fit with any market, and that’s hard, but the crux of why I write is to convey meaningful ideas–about what being human is, about the struggles human beings face–and these ideas are all present in the “story that will sell.” I’m not writing things I don’t believe in “just to get published.” Indeed, I suspect it’s almost impossible to write something publishable that doesn’t also resonate somehow with a thematic preoccupation near and dear to me.

Thirdly, my way is not the be-all and end-all of ways. If you’ve written a story you believe in, absolutely, stand by your story! Just don’t expect that it’s going to get published in a top-tier magazine. It might be, and cool beans if it is! But if you love your story, also be prepared to go to bat for it at any number of smaller, lesser known ‘zines until someone groks your style.

Remember:

  1. Whichever path you choose, you need to read the submissions guidelines. An editor is a human being, with specific preferences in general, and even more specific preferences for the publications they’re running. Honour their explicit requests not to see, say, any werewolf-themed YA romances until the year 2053. 
  2. Whichever path you choose, you need to read the publication itself. (This is CRITICAL, because submissions guidelines are often vague and misleading; a magazine that says it wants “experimental” fiction might mean “the kind of experimental fiction that is actually status quo in writing workshops right now” or it might mean “genuinely weird and risky work, the likes of which you’re not going to find anywhere else.” Only reading the magazine will give you a sense of what the editors mean by certain adjectives.) And finally:
  3. Dumping your story in all submissions queues is not a neutral move. If you do not demonstrate knowledge of a given magazine’s explicit or implicit preferences, just relentlessly submitting modern-dystopia zombie stories to a second-world fantasy magazine, you’re going to become known by the slush pile readers and editor, and not in a good way. Not in a way that encourages any of them to take a chance on your future work.

Now, occasionally, I do take risks on unknown publications, but these risks tend to uphold my underlying preferences when submitting fiction.

At the end of 2015, for instance, I submitted to Liminal Stories, which had yet to release a first issue at the time. Instead, I looked at the editors of this new publication, who all had significant professional backgrounds in the discipline, and I read their submissions requirements carefully. I’m not sure if what they currently have on the site is the same as what was present in December, but the description below is still a pretty good example of why submissions guidelines alone are not enough:

Liminal is searching for stories of a particular tone and tenor, regardless of form.  We like stories that are strange and unsettling, sharp-edged and evocative.  Although we will consider any genre, we have a soft spot for weird fiction, magical realism, soft science fiction, and those uncatagorizable stories that straddle the line between genres.  Liminal stories should linger in the mind and evoke emotion in the reader.

That first line says it all: The editors are looking for a “particular tone and tenor,” meaning that they’ll know what works for them when they see it. They offer a range of possibilities, but it’s rather open-ended: “weird fiction, magical realism, soft science fiction, and those uncatagorizable [sic] stories that straddle the line between genres.” You can get a sense from this list as to what won’t fit right off the bat–hard military SF, rigid secondary-world fantasy, traditional horror–but what will fit is, well, up to the editors’ preference. 

My story got to one of their final rounds of consideration, and received an extremely positive rejection that only proved bittersweet because this publication had been my last hope for a story (now binned). But–amusingly–when I saw the works they’d accepted for their first issue, I realized that if I’d had samples of their preferences on hand at the outset, I’d never have submitted to them in the first place. Abstracted, atmospheric, outside of time and place even when immersed in history: their preferred stories remind me of work from Shimmer, another place I rarely think a story of mine would make a good fit.

To be perfectly clear, though: My assessment of “fit” is by no means a slight against the publication! These editors found the works that they loved, and they went to bat for them, which is the mark of true professionals, and bodes well for the continuation of another excellent SF&F market. Nonetheless, the experience proved a good reminder of why I prefer to have read actual work from a magazine before submitting–because there’s always a limit to what submissions guidelines can tell you about editorial preference.

I suppose I should also address the elephant in the room when it comes to these paths for submission: You need to be honest with yourself about what you want from publication. Do you truly, in your heart of hearts, just want to see a story you love and take pride in find a home? Then take the first path: pitch it to places that seem a good stylistic fit, irrespective of all other considerations.

But if you have deeper motives–if you want to be paid for your work, if you want to be published in top-tier magazines, if you want to become a member of a professional writers’ association–then own those motives, and accept the more complicated path that those motives entail. Take the second approach. Read professional magazines carefully, and write with specific venues in mind.

Yes, I know this goes against the cherished belief in a higher spirit of artistic practice that will simply compel readership and accolades, but tough cookies. Any artistic outlet is also a community. It’s an ongoing conversation–a wonderful, wild rumpus of a discourse!–between readers and writers and editors who share a vision of how best to interpret and delight in and otherwise navigate the world.

So if you want to tell the stories that matter most to you in a way that reaches the widest possible audience, you need to behave precisely as you would if you were standing in a room filled with ongoing, in-person conversations: Either hold true to the conversation you want to have, and keep circulating the room until you find the group to match, or listen in to the group you’d most like to join, and find your own way to lend your voice to its established flow.

It’s that simple, and that relentlessly complex.

Good luck, good skill, and above all else, good reading!

The Lobster: A Tale of Frying Pans and Fires

the-lobster-movie-trailer-images-stills-colin-farrell-john-c-reilly-ben-whishaw

When I first heard about The Lobster, in a December 2013 article hyping movies of note in the year to come, I had no idea I’d have to wait two more years to see this one in theatre. I also had no idea how tenderly comic its misanthropy would be. The original blurb simply noted, as most summaries do now, that The Lobster told the story of a world where people had 45 days to find true love, or else be turned into other animals and released into the wild. Now, before I go any further, I must emphasize that this film is not for everyone: A wild donkey is shot in the opening scene. Rabbits die, and a dog, and there’s a failed suicide attempt played for laughs in the middle, too. But I adored this strange little film.

The Lobster, written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, has a surprisingly Hollywood-ized cast, including Colin Farrell as our recently divorced protagonist, David; Rachel Weisz as an unnamed but critical character, providing voice-over narration as well stage presence in the second and third acts; and John C. Reilly as a fellow hopeful at the Hotel where David first stays. Nevertheless, the film has a steadfastness, and playfully erratic approach to narrative voice, and relentlessness with the difficult ambiguities of our interactions with one another, that belies its true European heritage.

Despite its eccentricities, though, The Lobster also follows a fairly secure three-act structure–which, in combination with Colin Farrell’s tremulous sincerity, bleeding through even his own deadpan lines, gives the viewer plenty to cling to even as the plot twists in unexpected directions. So, yes, the film’s first act absolutely takes place in the Hotel, which regulates singles attempting to find true love in 45 days (with extensions granted to hotel guests who successfully tranquilize wild loners on routine hunting trips). However, the film’s second act then takes place among the loners in the wild, who listen to electronic music because they’re loners (obviously!), and who plot dramatic schemes to reveal, 1984-style, the fraudulent harmony of known couples in the Hotel and the City.

The last act then follows an attempt to break from both extremes (in keeping with the film’s constant teasing of rigid cultural binaries), and in so doing offers the case of a single relationship, where two people think they’ve found their soul mates because they have something in common. When this commonality is threatened, the film poses a splendidly difficult question about how far a person can/should/will go to restore that sense of harmony. I certainly won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the lead-up in that third act reminded me very much of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, in which a microcosm of Russia is gathered to be sick and maybe to get well; and in which one beautiful young woman, fated to lose a breast to cancer, builds a tender connection with our protagonist while in hospital; and in which the final third of the novel leaves the reader in the highest suspense as to whether the young man will keep his promise to reunite with her once he, too, passes in triumph from the shadow of death.

I should of course note that The Lobster does not paint all relationships as false enterprises; at least one older couple seems quite content and in sync, and remains unblemished by the many absurd, sometimes violent, often demoralizing deceits and betrayals that mark the rest of the film. However, what the film does do–quite splendidly–is highlight and gently pillory our cultural anxieties not just about our own partnership statuses, but also about the partnership statuses of everyone around us. In the meantime, the film also notes how friendships, alliances, and other bonds are marginalized despite their equal importance to anyone’s attempt to survive in this world. No man is an island, even if he can dig his own grave, but neither can a man simply will himself into bliss among fellow human beings. What a quandary these two facts provoke.

In consequence, though becoming another animal seems to many in the film a sign of defeat, The Lobster itself suggests that there are worse things, far worse things, we do to ourselves and each other in an effort to find our place, than might ever befall a hapless crustacean. If this film is misanthropic, then–and I strongly believe it is–it remains the best kind of misanthropy: The Lobster sees us at our worse, and hates the whole, strange, messy project of humanity enough to play us straight. Amid that brutal honesty, though, any flicker of surviving light becomes all the dearer for what we’ve seen it filtered through.

Maybe that’s not enough for most viewers, but it proved a feast for me.

 

Five Lessons after Dissertation-Mode

Isolation is a strange beast. Isolation because one has a monumental amount of work to do in a very short time, even stranger. On Friday, I submitted my first full dissertation draft, which was somewhat of a feat because I’m in Year 4 of a programme with just over a 6-year average completion time, in a discipline with an 8.7-year average completion time across North America.

Nevertheless, this is a middling achievement in the grand scheme of things, because my committee has understandable reasons why they can’t get comments back on the new sections for six weeks, meaning that my best-case scenario is another fortnight of long days and longer nights, from June 1 to 14, to try to meet the June 15 deadline necessary for a summer defense. The alternative, though, is to pay out-of-pocket for fall term fees, because all funding stops after four years. (It is a mess of a system.) So, really, in getting this far so quickly, I’ve just set myself up for a lot more isolation–and a lot more of the resentment I’ve discovered comes with it.

I would prefer not to be a resentful, cranky person, though, so on the back of my last few months of relentless dissertation work, and the last two weeks of far-too-many-long-nights-and-energy-drinks, here are five lessons relating to my writing practice, my community-building practice, and my general, healthy-human-being practice. It is my hope that my past poor moods might be of some instructive use to someone else in the middle of competing stressors. If not, well, at least have a chuckle at how long it’s taken me to learn what I’m sure many folks already grasp as basic truths.

Number 1: Honour Your Needs, and Avoid Those Who Don’t

If you haven’t already, you should try going on a break from immersive routines, just to see who does and does not respect your articulated needs for space and peace-and-quiet. For me, one of the most surprising consequences of telling people “I need to be alone for X amount of time to get my work done” was the number of people who pushed back by suggesting that when I say total isolation, surely I’m not including them. And surely it’s only in my best interest that I see them despite cutting out the rest of the world, right?

To be clear, this is a different group of people from those who, having seen me at my lowest, ask that I check in with a quick text once or twice, so they don’t have occasion to worry that my period of isolation is coinciding, say, with a serious bipolar-II downcycle. This is a fair compromise. I don’t mean to worry anyone. But I do sometimes need a solid, uninterrupted period of time to work–and that means that, yes, I can’t go out with you for a drink late one evening after working all day, because surprise! Drinking at night sometimes means losing out on early-morning writing time, too.

Some folks will always recognize your plainspoken list of needs for what it is, and respect the fact that you know your own needs better than they do. These are the ones who will be waiting with three cheers at the finish line, or whenever you’ve properly recovered from the race, in order to see you and catch up again.

Others, however well intentioned, will see your plainspoken list of needs as some measure of disruption to their status quo, and resist it on that basis, seeking reassurances at cost to your time and energy. This past year, I spent too much time trying to accommodate the concerns of this second group, and only ended up becoming resentful of folks who are otherwise quite lovely people. That resentment is on me, for not recognizing their anxieties as their own problems to solve, and for not holding firmly to my stated needs for time, and space, until the work is done.

Number 2: If It’s Not Reciprocal, It’s Not Community

One of the hardest lessons this past year has been realizing that, just because you build a space where people can gather around a shared interest, doesn’t mean you’ve built a community–at least not one that serves your own needs even close to all the time. In the process of learning this lesson, I’ve allowed myself to get fairly discouraged at times by the fact that “sharing interests” doesn’t always mean “being peers,” and I’ve indulged in some consequent feelings of loneliness, too, while trying to find folks with a similar inner drive.

The trouble is, again, my fault. I do a lot of emotional labour for people in my circles, and am always ready to extend my writing, editing, and teaching expertise to help others. This can be fairly taxing work, but it only really goes south for me, emotionally, when those same folks either take my help for granted, or put me on a pedestal for providing it. The moment I’m not being treated like a fellow human being, I check out emotionally, and I stop expecting reciprocity. But I still offer the help itself, and that’s where the trouble lies.

Amusingly, I suspect I acquired this trait from my father, who would always help out his children to the best of his ability–even if he was deeply frustrated by the surrounding circumstances–but if he was cranky about having to provide help in the first place, we children always knew. This rather made me dread letting him know I needed anything, because who wants to upset their parents? But as an adult myself, I recognize now how the situation has flipped: Now, in many worlds, I’m often the one with the skills and wherewithal to offer assistance, and I have trouble recognizing when helping someone else will come at too much of a time and energy cost to myself. Nevertheless, when the person I’ve helped treats me like something other than a human being of equal worth–not greater, not lesser, just equal–I often feel low. Does it change my future policy, into one of avoiding emotionally draining interactions? Rarely. But it should.

Number 3: Your Best Work Will Show Up When You Can Let Your Hard Work Go

There were many times this year when I kept mistaking “I worked really hard on X” with “so X should be really good!” This was true for some of my chapter work, and it was true for some of my surrounding fiction work, but most of all, it was true for most of my “being a human being” work.

Getting caught up in notions that the simple investment of time and energy entitle you to anything in this world is unhealthy: No, you don’t get the girl just because you spent so much time trying to do nice things for her. No, you don’t get the job just because you spent hours working on your CV and interview prep. And no, you don’t get to say your writing’s where it needs to be just because you spent hours, days, weeks, or even months painstakingly crafting a given text. You are a finite agent in the universe; act accordingly.

For example, when my committee met for the first time in my dissertation process, just this past January, they made some comments about the latest chapter that I found, in the heat of things, quite baffling. They regarded the work as “rushed,” intimated that I’d intentionally put aside textual evidence in order to make my claims, and suggested that I must have been tightly wound up during the research process because it showed in the writing.

These were staggering comments, because I’d actually found that research process to be a joy spread out over a few months: a chance to grapple with a text delightfully ambivalent about the purpose of existence. What seemed forced to them in my argumentation simply had to do with different approaches to characterization (now dealt with in an added history section on “type”). But after getting over my initial frustration, I remembered an important truth about writing–any writing: It’s only as good as the reader thinks it is.

Sure, I could have stubbornly dug in my heels and resisted change, claiming that I knew in my heart of hearts that I was right, so there! But what would that accomplish? What personal growth could possibly ensue? I had to learn this same lesson with fiction as well this term: Just because you love something, just because you worked hard at something, doesn’t mean it’s a good fit. As Neil Gaiman says:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The trick to being a good writer (a separate skill from “writing well”) is being able to let go of something that isn’t working: to honour that most important bit–how this “doesn’t work for them”–and to learn from it as you move on.

Number 4: Celebrate Success–With All The Reservations You Need

Possibly what most discouraged me this term was a complaint, just as I was gearing up for another run of dissertation work, that I wasn’t performing my success as a writer as well as some others thought I should. This complaint cut deeply for reasons that have a lot to do with the whole “wanting to be treated as a human being” business mentioned above. But of course, just because we deserve to be treated as complete human beings doesn’t mean we always will be–so it’s important to have an internal action plan instead.

After all, absolutely, I’ve been extremely fortunate to find favour with a few magazines in the last few years, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still in process, and not still very much struggling to balance different forms of writing in my life. So, sure, I celebrated the heck out of my latest Analog publication–posting a review of the full issue, sharing photos of the lovely cover art associated with my story, noting with no small excitement a positive Tangent Online review that I felt “got” the story best–but I also felt some sadness, which I articulated here as well, that I have nothing else coming down the pipe just yet, and almost nothing in submissions queues. In short, my latest story in Analog was a bittersweet success precisely because I’m a writer, and, oh, how I long to be writing more.

Similarly, absolutely, I’m doing my best to finish my PhD in an unheard-of-for-my-programme four years (including summer term)–but I also spent three months of that doctoral career in a crisis outpatient hospital programme, and another three months in day-hospital crisis programming, recovering from a severe bipolar-II low. Any time I was alone, I was a danger to myself; the only way I had of surviving, until I was finally given the care I needed, was by clinging aggressively to work, and the obligations to others that this work yielded–and yet, that bare-minimum functionality ironically made it hard for me to get proper treatment to manage my illness, and so to begin to thrive. In consequence, I know all too well that a “strong work ethic” is a double-edged sword, and I find it difficult to look at my doctoral career solely as a success on this accord. When we regard hard work as automatically praise-worthy, without reservation or concern, I strongly feel we further a culture that doesn’t do enough to promote good mental health.

In the end, though, this, too, is a “me” problem: I have to learn to be less frustrated when people expect me to be wildly, 100% celebratory in the wake of anything that seems, to them, a great accomplishment. Quite possibly, after all, the same accomplishments I look upon with reservations drawn from personal experience are accomplishments they covet themselves, and would kill to be able to achieve in turn. I get that. I do. But I also don’t owe anyone an emotional performance, ever, so–again, to avoid fostering resentment towards otherwise lovely human beings–I simply need to disengage more effectively whenever their expectations of my conduct make me ill-at-ease.

Number Five: Celebrate Success–Everyone Else’s More Than Yours

Pursuant to the aforementioned complaints about how I was performing as a writer this term, I could have cried when I came across this interview with Lynn Steger Strong, in which the interviewer notes the following about the author:

Strong has no interest in talking about her own book, which is seventeen days from publication. She has no interest in promoting herself; in fact, she shies a bit when she sees the hardcover, and instead reaches for my work on the table, pushing her book aside. She asks me to tell her everything.

Of course she doesn’t have any interest in talking about her own book! How bizarre to me are the writers who, in seeing a work now out of their hands–no more to be tweaked and polished–are more interested in that dead piece of text than the next, and the next: the writing still heaving with possibility!

I’m sure Strong would also agree that even other people’s finished, published works would have been more interesting to her than her own book during that waiting period, if only because in each work by other authors lies the opportunity for new personal inspiration, not to mention a deeper understanding of the larger literary landscape we all inhabit.

To this end, over the last few months, I’ve read extensively and joyously–but maybe I haven’t done as good a job as I could at promoting the work that inspired me the most. For instance, I delighted in The Library at Mount Char, a book of very adult urban fantasy by Scott Hawkins that trusts its reader, and a testament (it being his first book, published in his forties) to how good work arrives when it’s damned well ready, and not a moment sooner.

I also unabashedly enjoyed Arkwright, by Allen Steele, even though I know, I know, that a book about how an SF writer transforms the real world with the proceeds from his literary successes, by investing in a deep-space colony to be realized generations after his death, has “pandering-to-other-SF-writers” written all over it. It’s still a splendid, tender, downright adorable homage to Golden-Era SF, and its publication preceded Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot project by months. (So there.)

Meanwhile, on the short-story front, anything by Kij Johnson sends me over the moon, due to her wise interweaving of animality into human narratives, so I was delighted to see a piece of hers, “Coyote Invents the Land of the Dead,” in Clarkesworld‘s March 2016 issue. Tor.com also recently published a piece that echoes some of what I loved best about the work of Frederik Pohl, but in Lavie Tidhar’s “Terminal,” loneliness, and the lengths we go to negotiate it, has the added uncanniness of existing in a highly plausible near-future scenario as private companies set their sights on Mars.

I, too, wrote and published a piece about near-future Mars exploration, but I know that, for most readers, “We Who Are About To Watch You Die Salute You” was too much, too dense, too bizarre. My own failure in this regard doesn’t make me sad to see the theme done better, though: quite the opposite. When I come across writers whose work moves me, whose work challenges me, whose work gives voice to the ideas that, in the past, I’ve found the hardest to describe, I’m coming across people who remind me why I love what I do.

Celebrating their success is simply another way of building purpose, and if I’ve learned anything over this last leg of the journey, it’s that you truly need a sense of purpose (arising internally, but remaining pragmatically cognizant of the external world) to keep self-improvement at the fore of all you do.

Easier said than done, I suppose. But what could be more worthwhile to nurture, than that tide of self-improvement, which lifts all other boats with you?

Writing While Angry

With some amusement, I’ve come to realize that anger is my dominant writing mode. Anger with myself, mostly. Anger with the world at times, too. I’ve written on anger here before–struggling with its hot-blooded legacy, and the ways that anger can be a force of both destruction and creation–but understanding anger’s impact in my life is an ongoing process more than an achievement of perfect clarity. Today, I’m reflecting on it in a mostly positive way, as a tool for writing–but also as one easily used to harmful excess.

I was in the middle of a New Yorker article, “How to Beat Writer’s Block,” when the connection between anger and my “growth spurts” in writing dawned on me. The article outlines four types of “blocked” writer, as per the research of Barrios and Singer:

In one group, anxiety and stress dominated; to them, the main impediment to writing was a deep emotional distress that sapped the joy out of writing. In another group, unhappiness expressed itself interpersonally, through anger and irritation at others. A third group was apathetic and disengaged, while a fourth tended to be angry, hostile, and disappointed—their emotions were strongly negative, as opposed to merely sad.

I recognized in the first group the despair I’d experienced when struggling with the extreme lows of bipolar II in 2013 and 2014–how even my perception of colour significantly dulled; how the experience of listening to music became physically unbearable; how I felt a deep exhaustion, a joyless misery, whenever I attempted to use words as a way out of my difficult mental state.

What surprised me, though, was the fourth group–the “angry, hostile, and disappointed” band of writers. I didn’t resonate with this group’s reason for being blocked, which involved a tendency to “look for external motivation …  driven by the need for attention and extrinsic reward,” but the feelings themselves struck a chord in relation to my latest rush of creative activity.

I made a huge mistake recently, one I don’t usually fall prey to: I fell in love with something I’d written. It was the first thing I’d written after a colossal failure of a story–a failure I’d been able to accept as a problem with returning to fiction after a slog of thesis work, and the difficult cadence of starting to teach my first course. This first story’s failure was something I understood on many levels–the infodumping, the pacing, the inept and underdeveloped themes and secondary characters–the moment I received a very thorough rejection letter. The only anger I felt in relation to it–a huge anger, granted–was that I didn’t have any time to apply those lessons to something new. A whole month of dedicated thesis-writing loomed before my next block for fiction.

And then, when I wrote again, everything came pouring out: a month’s worth of pent-up intent. In three days I had a story I felt perfectly married the aims of my general fiction and my science fiction; which drew from elements of real life in a way that transformed the scenario while keeping the heart of the memory; and which, if I may be so bold, had some of the nicest sentences I think I’ve ever written.

All the while, and after–in the happy glow of accomplishment–I rolled the phrase over and over in my head: you’re only as good a writer as the last good writing you read. In my case, what I’d last truly adored wasn’t writing so much as an excellent TV-adaptation, The Expanse, from James S. A. Corey’s splendid SF novels. And I was 100% convinced that this excellent adaptation had inspired me in the best possible way, to write about big, space-opera-sized issues through interpersonal moments.

Eesh. Was I wrong. I didn’t think my story was slow, just small. Otherwise, the beats were typical: In the opening two sentences, the “hook”, I established that the protagonist had an unusual engagement with something the reader, a life-long Earther, would take for granted. I spent the rest of the opening scene introducing core characters and tensions. I developed two motifs throughout using different scenarios to reflect various aspects. I gave every character I introduced a moment to shine. Etc. etc.

But in the process, I’d forgotten that small is slow. When swift rejection after rejection called attention to the editors being thrown out at the beginning, I quickly realized that the stakes weren’t high enough. Someone trying to figure out if her partner in revolution also made a good life-mate was, to most people, boring. And sure, I grumbled a little at one piece of feedback, which suggested that the protagonist having ever been attracted to her stand-offish ideologue of a partner wasn’t realistic (hah), but mostly? Mostly I was angry with myself for not realizing sooner that the small/slow story wouldn’t work. And I was angry with myself for thinking that what ran so deeply true to me, on a personal level, would intrinsically ring true for everybody else.

I even felt, in the wake of those rejections, ashamed to have wasted editors’ time with a story that, in hindsight, was so obviously a mismatch for my markets. I don’t advocate this as a healthy reaction! It was, however, mine. I should know better by now, said my ego. I shouldn’t be mismatching stories and markets at this point in my publishing career.

Well, tough nuts, Ego: I did. I mismatched, and my anger at this mistake could have easily become an implosion. If my instincts are so far off the mark, can I trust anything I write? Anything I submit? Maybe I shouldn’t bother. Maybe I shouldn’t write at all for a while… But I didn’t implode, and that’s thankfully where I differ from the “angry, hostile, and disappointed” group, whose feelings send them into a tailspin of writer’s block.

Instead, I wrote a burner story. I wrote a story I knew I wasn’t going to submit, to cleanse the palate, to try out a few different approaches to narrative form, and ultimately, to let go.

Now I’m working on another story, and the writing is going swimmingly. I’m having a lot of fun with the characters and the world. My mind’s even wandering to the possibility of sequels, if the mystery and detecting duo in this one find a decent audience.

But I’m not in love with it, because for me that’s not where growth lies. For me, growth lies in being functionally cranky with myself: that is, in being as dissatisfied as possible with what I’ve produced without giving up on producing and submitting at all.

The line is tricky to walk. I’m a human being with a condition that requires me to be super careful about how I negotiate feelings of anger and disappointment with myself. I’m also a human being who recognizes the importance of letting things go, and who cherishes the level of hard-won maturity that makes this letting go easier than it used to be.

When I write, though, I’m calling upon who I am. I’m calling upon the experiences I’ve had to date, and the themes with the deepest meaning to me, and the perspectives that I value most. And I can be disappointed in who I am–I can chew over my hypocrisies and my weaknesses and my smallness–but all that chewing over doesn’t magically free me from myself. Errors of judgment happen when I’m too enamoured with something I’ve done, when my version of the world seems like the best possible way through–but when I accept that my subject-position in the universe is all I have to work with, for better and for worse…

Well, that’s when the work gets done.

That’s when, story by story, I improve.

So I wonder that more writers don’t talk about anger. For some reason, popular writing advice fails to counsel, Be angry with yourself. Be angry, too, with the state of the world. Be unhappy with what you produce, but not so unhappy that you can’t move forward. Be frustrated when your ego gets in the way of the work. And hey, maybe most writers aren’t angry people. Good for them.

But I guarantee that many of us struggle every day with our sense of self, and don’t know what to do with the disappointment and the fury and the shame that sometimes engulf us.

My maxim is simple: Anger doesn’t entitle you to a day off.

It’s all useful. Write it down.

Reviewing the Rest of Analog April 2016

I love reading the work with which I’m lucky enough to share an issue, so I’d like to chat a bit about the other content in Analog‘s April 2016 issue.

There haven’t been many formal reviews of this issue yet, but specific reader comments are always insightful. In relation to my story, my favourites involve readers who enjoyed the story right up to the ending, which they didn’t consider to be an ending. Obviously I think there is a coherent arc in the story, but this isn’t the first time I’ve read reviews that complain my stories feel more like parts of a novel. Is my world-building interesting enough that folks would like to see more? Maybe. More likely, though, some readers want endings in which every major problem in the world I’ve created is not just revealed, but also resolved to some extent. The idea of focussing on huge social issues through little growths might not offer enough catharsis, and that’s completely fair. In either case, this leaves a lot of food for thought, and I’m grateful for every comment.

But now for the good stuff! The other content!

Analog Science Fiction & Fact – April 2016

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Michael F. Flynn starts us off with a guest editorial, “The Autumn of Modern Science.” In deft, concise, and punchy phrases that make me look at my dissertation in shame, Flynn offers an argument for the decline of the “Modern Ages,” as this concept manifests in our valuation of science and reason. Flynn argues that “final causes” are making a comeback in our rhetoric for scientific discovery, with all its shifting reliance on non-empirical theorizing and huge bodies of empirical data that do not survive replication studies. He offers a few “bold forecasts” in closing, but the real pleasure is the wealth of sourcing all throughout. Flynn starts us out with a tale of our times–the perfect non-fiction complement for many of the fictions to come.

Choice excerpt: “But the fabric of the Modern Ages is fraying, and Science is one of the threads. Enrollment in STEM courses has dropped. Everyone wants to be America’s Next Top Model, not so many her Next Top Organic Chemist.”

Biolog — Me. I won’t say much about this, except to say that I still remember shivering violently on the balcony for an hour, because the reception was rough, and the weather in my neck of the woods had just turned. Amid our struggles simply to hear each other, I’m stunned that there was any coherent material for Richard A. Lovett to use, and am grateful to him for making my first formal author’s interview so generous an affair.

In lieu of talking about “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan,” I’m just going to say that the cover illustration by Tomislav Tikulin is perfect; the heavy shadows of space dominate a two-page spread depicting a ship heading towards a bright star in the lower-right-hand corner. In so doing, Tikulin offers a complicated balance between the ominous, the uncertain, and the faintly optimistic. I’m thrilled.

Mark C. Childs offers a delightful work of Science Fact after my novelette. “Composing Speculative Cities” explores the logic of city-building in science fiction: first by example in great stories, and then through various ideological frameworks. The key here is harmonizing form and function, and also allowing for evolutionary growth as a feature, not a bug, in coherent city systems. Childs also wisely notes that the relationship is two-way: Just as our needs shape a given ecosystem, so too does the ecosystem shape us. His observations pursuant to less tangible city-scape components make this a thoughtful read for short-story and novel-writers alike, and his closing note–a reminder that the work of science-fiction writers can inspire real-world design in turn–offers a subtle reminder that there are many damned good reasons for getting our fictional ecosystems right.

Choice excerpt: “Third places come in many forms–the beauty shop, laundromat, public well, playground, truck stop, bus stop, etc. The public gondolas in Telluride, Colorado engender fifteen-minute conversations between indiscriminate collections of two to six strangers. A writer’s choice of venue frames the conversation, characters, and society.”

Edward M. Lerner returns the issue to fiction with “Soap Opera,” but even just from the opening lines, there’s a powerful synchronicity between Lerner’s tale and the preceding essays by Flynn and Childs. William Findlay considers himself a “Modern Man,” a senior engineer working in radio in 1931, when the world seems to stand on the cusp of the “future of broadcasting.” But the limits of William’s fealty to new technology for new-technology’s sake are tested when a damsel in distress and a particularly invasive investor clue him into a sinister misuse of the airwaves. Speculative history is a delight of a genre when handled in an immersive (not self-aware) manner, and Lerner is an able master of this period in broadcast history. An understated story with a winner of an ending.

Choice excerpt: “Moore was substantial, of almost Taft-like proportions, somewhat around fifty years of age. He was bald but for a close-cropped, salt-and-pepper fringe, with a round, florid face and a Clark Gable mustache. Had Moore’s suit, a somber black, instead shone a phosphorescent green, he still would have come across as a funeral director.”

Stephen R. Wilk‘s “Alloprene” shifts the issue to more classic territory: a robot, a human, and a mysterious series of tests. The frame narrative, in which the human goes home to his partner and cat, gives the story an Encyclopedia Brown feel: Jason relates the strange interactions between himself and an AI called “Alloprene” that day, and Audrey pieces together most of the mystery. Subtle touches give this sneaky story depth, including how the cat functions as a thematic clue throughout, how a “failed” Turing test yields stronger banter amid the day’s experiments, and how the couple ultimately relies on technology to confirm their suspicions in the end. A very playful piece.

Choice excerpt: “I wasn’t raised playing in a playground ‘shooting for it.’ I had to search through citations on slang and sort out which meaning was likely. Please don’t make me try to work it out like that. I’ve been trying to maintain the fiction that you’re speaking normally with another person. This kind of thing shatters the mood.”

Martin L. Shoemaker‘s “Early Warning” is another classic science-fiction trope with a playful twist. Our protagonist faces off with his future self, who invented time travel to undo a terrible mistake with a girl named Gwen. As incredible as our protagonist finds the idea that one failed relationship could cause twenty years of misery, he’s far more intrigued by what this misery achieved. A lot of the humour in this piece arises from the pair’s pedantic banter and our protagonist’s insistence on getting mathematical proofs for time travel before going further.

Choice excerpt: “He smiled: ‘You can lie to yourself, maybe, but you can’t lie to me. It’s not the same beer it was when Dad drank it. Even he won’t touch it now. You’re not drinking it for nostalgia, you’re drinking it because it’s a cheap way to get drunk.'”

(Future selves are the worst for arguments. And the best.)

A wee poem from Robert Frazier rounds out this part of the issue. “Final Dispatch” is a final prayer to the universe from a speaker on a “lightship set adrift,” far from the reaches of other human beings. There’s a definite sense of relief in being able to lay down the load, with “No more code to thread and rethread / No new ideas to drive through my head.” As such, I think this piece resonates well with the fate of the future-self in Shoemaker’s story, which ends just a few lines above.

Edward M. Lerner then switches to non-fiction for “A Certain Uncertainty,” which offers a splendid counterpoint to some of the comments in Flynn’s opening editorial. Lerner uses the conceptual framework and scientific history of the electron to explore quantum mechanics as a field that offers quantifiability only through statistical modelling. However, Lerner’s approach to the uncertainties of modern mathematical physics maintains a level of optimism about its endgame, and foregrounds the idea that we’re simply between major paradigm shifts–not at the end of advances in predictive modelling entirely.

Choice excerpt: “If modern practitioners have failed to reach consensus (not that science depends on consensus), they’re in good company. The giants of early twentieth-century physics–people like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Werner Heisenberg, each eventually a Nobelist in physics for his contributions to QM–also struggled with the meaning beneath the math.”

Rich Larson‘s “Sleep Factory” might be the second-shortest story in this issue, but it packs a huge punch. The scenario is on one level very familiar: two people in love work an extremely dangerous job to get by; one thinks it’s time to leave, but the other is not so sure; and tragedy ensues. However, Larson’s brevity means we only focus on what makes this story distinct: namely, the specific people playing out this timeless devastation. His world-building is as rich as it seems effortless.

Choice excerpt: “Abdoulaye whistles the latest from Safi’s most reviled Nigerian blip-hop star while they unload mangos, day-old baguette, a chunk of red-rimed Gouda. He’s hoping to make her laugh or snap at him, but Safi’s lips stay glued. She’s barely spoken since they passed the garbage tip outside the sleep factory.”

Eric Choi‘s “Most Valuable Player” is the shortest story in the issue: three dialogues between a baseball player who will never play again, his estranged partner, and her brother, a math geek. The speculative thrust of this piece is slight–the idea that we might one day be able to calculate the truly best sports figures of all time by accounting for every variation in challenge each confronted–and as such, the length makes sense. At this length, though, the dialogue format doesn’t allow for much depth of character, and what there is, is sometimes contradictory (e.g. Daniel talks at length about baseball in the opening scene, but in the second scene Terry is surprised to hear that Daniel is a baseball fan). It’s a dilly of a writer’s pickle, though: how to sustain a tendril of a what-if long enough to flesh out the surrounding characterizations needed to make a story sing.

Choice excerpt: “Math! Man, who’d have thought…”

Rosemary Claire Smith‘s “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs” is the third in its universe. The novelette opens with a child’s imaginative questions about dinosaurs–a clever move, since this conversation with the protagonist, Dr. Marty Zuber, integrates vital world-building before the main story takes off. That story takes dino-lore into appropriately cynical directions; there is one subplot about a dangerous corporate desire to reproduce dinosaurs in the present, but a bigger problem for this time-travelling cast of scientists is the threat of modern-day mining companies exploiting mineral resources millions of years in the past. This story’s sense of humour comes from the haphazard interplay of so many nuisance corporate interests, media and mineral alike, and the tension between different stakes for different characters negotiating a dino-laden pre-history. Smith’s story offers pointed commentary on how hard many humans seem to work to take all the wonder out of the best things in life–by which I mean, of course, dinosaurs.

Choice excerpt: “[Diamond Jim] deserves his reputation for being a maverick and an iconoclast. He’s so energetic, so in-your-face. He talks a mile a minute and it all leads to how smart he is.”

“But apart from that, he’s a great guy?”

The last story in the issue is Stephen L. Burns‘s “Playthings,” a gritty, hard-bitten number in which a seasoned police operative investigates a series of murders that lead him to uncover a thriving child-sex-trade industry, surrounding societal corruption, and one citizen who’s found a particularly clever way of fighting back. The title refers to both the abused children and the advanced toys that help our protagonist solve this case, and although one specific toy complicated the temporal narrative for me (always tricky, invoking current toy trends in an otherwise vaguely future setting), the motif worked well on whole. The ultimate tension of the story is familiar–does the hard cop in an even harder world let a good man break the law to help those no one else will?–but Burns’ clipped dialogue and punctuated beats keep the story running smoothly.

Choice excerpt: “Cop.Ascetic kept me from feeling any sort of anger or outrage at any of this. The strongest emotion that seeped through that chemical shield was a sort of weary sorrow. Over and over again, we are told that this is the best of all possible worlds and times. I suppose for some that is true–the ones saying it the loudest.”

Rounding out the issue is Don Sakers‘s “The Reference Library,” which summarizes the spread for the awards season upon us, and includes reviews of six books: Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, To Shape the DarkArkwrightUnforgettableChildren of the Comet, and Rhythm of the ImperiumArkwright looks especially intriguing: definitely a book to flatter SF writers in all that we do.

All in all, I found this issue impressively cohesive. Editor Trevor Quachri and Assistant Editor Emily Hockaday structured non-fiction essays and stories in a way that worked uncannily well, with many excellent resonance points between content throughout. The striking cover art by Bob Eggleton just clinched this issue as a damned lucky one to be a part of–and I am, indeed, thrilled to have this one on my shelf.

Happy reading and happy writing, everyone!

The Scattered Self: Seven Notes from a Strange Month

1

Lately I keep coming back to a Peter Handke poem, one perhaps best known to North Americans through Wings of Desire (1987). Als das Kind Kind war / wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, comes as gentle a voice-over as the German language allows: “When the child was a child / It did not know it was a child.” And later:

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

For some, “Song of Childhood” might seem pretentious because of the film (European art cinema not being to everyone’s taste). For others, Peter Handke’s humanness–his flaws, which perhaps came out most publicly around the trial of Slobodan Milošević, and in a speech at Milošević’s funeral–withered love for this work as well. Even just as a secular humanist, I find that certain terms in the poem fall flat every time, and yet, its ending always bothers me in just the right way:

Als das Kind Kind war,
warf es einen Stock als Lanze gegen den Baum,
und sie zittert da heute noch.

When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.

It’s a subtle image, because the stick never quivered like a lance in the first place–it was always just an idea in the child’s head–and yet, the idea of the act perseveres.

So much, wanted or otherwise, perseveres.

I come back to this poem often, I think, because I feel very much an adult these days, but I also know how arbitrary that construct is: adulthood, adultness. For one, I have to be careful not to take exhaustion with or withdrawal from the world as metrics of true maturity. As Nazim Hikmet wrote, “Living is no laughing matter: / You must live with great seriousness, / like a squirrel, for example–” And I try. Sometimes I try too hard, and feel ashamed and even more exhausted for the attempt.

Mostly, though, adultness is, for me, a matter of being able to forgive, if not understand, individuals who trespass against me, while holding systemic failures to a higher standard, and knowing when to stand against them; to accept greater social roles and maintain personal responsibility within all of them; to value patience and my work; and to be comfortable being alone, to love silence and the reflections it brings.

I also have to avoid forgetting that this arbitrary sense of adultness is fraught with day-to-day inconsistencies: the petty word, the absurd preoccupation, the inexplicably routine transgression against ideals and even people we hold dear. I recently finished Best of Enemies (2015), a documentary about the heated 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, and found myself sympathetic to Buckley’s subsequent obsession with trying to understand why he’d burst on live TV into a brutal undermining of all his best attempts at enlightened discourse: “Now listen you queer. Quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Obviously, there’s a lot of pride at work in fixating on one’s indiscretions to such a degree, but that’s probably why I resonated so much with Buckley then, and with how that incident shaped him in years to come: Ego figures at the height and the heart of all my breaking points, too.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), there is a famous (infamous?) moment when Jesus in the desert confronts an angel who asks, “Do you remember when you were a small child still unable to walk, you clung to the door of your house and to your mother’s clothes so that you would not fall, and you shouted within yourself, shouted loudly, ‘God, make me God! God, make me God! God, make me God!'” Jesus begs not to be reminded of that “shameless blasphemy” (the entire point of the volume being that, if Jesus wasn’t at least tempted by sin and related emotional excesses, he didn’t really live as a man, and therefore his sacrifice would be meaningless). And yet, we live in a Christian-influenced culture where the opposite of such “blasphemy”–namely, the wholehearted celebration of brokenness–thrives right alongside market forces very much attempting to convince people of the attainability of perfection.

Whenever I conflate exhaustion and maturity, I suspect it’s this tug-of-war that wears at me most: the oscillation between celebrating our wildest aspirations and singing to the hills about our deepest setbacks. However, for better or for worse, these are the ideas that frame most of our culture’s conversation about what it means to be human, and to live a good life. Maybe if I’d been born into different circumstances–a member of a nomadic people that spends most of its life in isolation; a citizen of a small island where everyone knows everyone else’s business already–I would have a more surefooted set of social narratives to confront whenever I leave my own shell. But I don’t.

I have, at thirty, attained a level of calm and deliberation unlike any I’ve known before.

And yet, something quivers still today. Echoes from the past. A damned nuisance of a fantasy in the present.

2

One of my favourite works in Best European Fiction 2916 comes from Hungary. Krisztina Tóth’s contribution is an excerpt from a collection of short stories, Pixel, in which each story is named after a body part. Her theme involves how abstract metrics of humanness are just as fragmented as our concrete selves: how our personal and cultural memories, our day-to-day impressions of ourselves and others, are erratic mosaics even at their most coherent. There are four stories in the excerpt, but I found the first two especially haunting.

In “The Hand’s Story,” the image of a hand is assigned to a six-year-old boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, abruptly slaughtered at the first paragraph’s end. But was it a boy at all? Or was it a girl, at Auschwitz, who survives? Or does the hand belong to her friend later in life, a woman abandoned as a child by a mother with only two passes to escape the war, and now, all grown up, with a son of her own? “Naturally this has nothing to do with the other boy with the same name seen in the Warsaw Ghetto, whom everyone soon forgot. This David wasn’t forgotten.” But is that true, either? “Naturally, none of this is certain. The names drift around us, it would be difficult to follow up on each one.”

The disruption of linear narrative is a common device in Eastern European fiction, but no less true outside causes like the Holocaust and WWII. How many of us know what our grandparents were like when they were children? The names of everyone in our kindergarten classes, or all the people who helped our parents when we were very small? And does it matter? Does the story not, for all its shifting names and dates, go on?

In “The Neck’s Story,” that level of uncertainty is revisited in a single life: When a woman beelines from a change room, her daughter thinks she’s just insecure about dressing up at her age. In actuality, the older woman has come across something that profoundly reorders a series of memories–one little detail in the change room that unravels all her latent pride in a youthful moment, and leaves her only with the realization of past foolishness. It’s one of those revelations impossible to contextualize for anyone around her (certainly not for her daughter), though it constitutes a landslide within one life: a reminder that all our narratives are contingent and precarious–and that maybe some of our dearest, our most fanciful delusions, are even more so.

3

I had a frivolous thought the other day–nursed it, built plans around it, and let it consume a chunk of mental energy before I let it go. When I’d set it safely aside, I wondered how many more frivolous thoughts I’d have in my lifetime. A thousand? A hundred thousand? Tens of millions? I wondered, too, at the supreme arrogance of thinking that just because I know there are more pressing concerns in life, I’m somehow above indulging in the petty and the absurd.

But still: What strange creature is a human being, that it oscillates so frequently from major to minor themes and back again?

I asked a variation of this question in the class I teach this term, after negotiating the social contract in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” (1973) and the socio-religious contract that Ivan condemns in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). I wanted to know how the students felt about going through the world hearing of horrors at home and abroad, accidental and intentional alike, and then measuring these sadnesses against the more immediate concerns in their lives: what to eat for lunch, how to pay rent, which courses to take, whether to confront a coworker over some malingering slight. How did it feel to know that they had been born into a social contract not of their own devising, but also that they upheld this contract in a million tacit ways every day?

I wanted to know, but the question hung in the air, until one of my rattling coughs spared students the inevitability of response. Maybe they would have had exceptional answers, if the last throes of my weekend flu hadn’t compelled me to hurry the class to its end. Or maybe they would have had no answer, no matter how long I waited them out, because there was simply no answer to give: because I was asking fish in water to identify an essential fishness separate from the water they swim in. As if the possibility ever existed for them to swim in anything else.

4

What strange creature is a human being?

One chapter of my dissertation opens with Psalm 8:3-4 in the King James Version, which was favoured among 19th-century Christian writers, and which, for all its eccentricities and inconsistencies, often holds closer than modern Christian bibles to the complicated spirit of the original Hebrew. For instance, in Psalm 8:3-4, two Hebrew words are used to describe human beings with different levels of fragility:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man [enosh], that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man [ben Adam], that thou visitest him?

Modern bibles tend to swap out “son of man” for “mankind” or “human beings” because this term, used by Yahweh to address Ezekiel and Daniel, and in general reference to individuals or whole tribes in their weakest sense, has a different resonance in Christian theology. Christ is recorded by the anonymous authors of the gospels as referring to himself as the “son of man”–in the same way many Jewish persons seemed to in prior generations; the way we might say “myself” today, if we still carried hierarchies of humility in our pronouns. Thus, applications of ben Adam that complicate the link between Ezekiel, Daniel, and the New Testament are cut from Americanized texts like the New International Version, and maintained in other places with explicit footnotes pursuant to their presumed prophetic function.

In my studies of a period in astronomy’s history when Christian theology still played a significant role in surrounding discourse, I find plenty of opportunity to dabble in biblical nuance: to shake my head at historical revisionism, and the smallness of these source texts in so many ways, and the idea that these, these are the stories on which so much of the contemporary Western world was founded. It’s only well after a given research moment, when I’ve had time to cool my proverbial heels, that I realize how much I still empathize with many of those ancient writers. The original “Psalmist,” for instance, looked to the skies with a specific understanding of the universe, and struggled to orient himself within it. Surely there is more curiosity, more integrity in that questing spirit, than one often finds in people who prefer a literalist approach to those texts today, when we have so many other modes of understanding at our disposal. In light of that struggle, then, my question and the Psalmist’s aren’t so dissimilar after all:

What strange creature is a human being?

Our answers, of course, differ immensely, but even then, only because I have access to information not at his disposal. Would he not think differently today? Wouldn’t I, in his context? So in the absence of religious notions of destiny–in light, that is of modern biology and sociology–a human being is, for me, a creature of fixations, with an overarching desire for stimulus that (for now) more often perpetuates the species than not. Pulses of light and sound (music, speeches, video) enliven us to sensations we call anger, pity, amusement, but even though we’ve grown more nuanced in our reactions, our articulations of personal narrative, the knee-jerk impulses remain. Whole lifestyles therefore preoccupy themselves with reactive stillness: retraining the body to do less, say less, be less. And yet the body remains: easy to break, easy to tire, easy to provoke.

Put another way, we’ve got good reason to believe we’re bundles of algorithms formed by an admixture of biological potential and myriad environmental forces, most of which we can never perfectly connect to specific outcomes in our thoughts and actions. But in that inability to directly link everything we do and say with everything that preceded a given moment’s “impulse,” our imaginations thrive, our egos inflate, and we foster a theory of the self as a conscious, coherent, “free” agent in the universe.

No wonder, then, that the routine we vowed not to repeat (but do), or the frivolous thought we thought we’d overcome (but hadn’t), or the unexpected harm we thought we’d never commit (but did), becomes such a nuisance. Such flaws in the system are gentle reminders that this theory of a coherent self, with an ability to will itself consistently into certain forms of action, fails to account for all the evidence about who we are, and how our bodies interact in the world.

An illusion of self is all that remains. A story that comes and goes. But what use is that?

5

In this story, the body wakes–on the days when it wakes well–with a sense of limitless potential. It feels the presence of the sun and hears the intermittent rush of traffic in the streets below, and thinks itself a potent part of something larger. Its eyes are still tired but its arms ghost about the rooms, our lizard-brain more fully awake before the rest.

Moreover, the body hasn’t heard its own voice in hours, and as it readies for the day, it entertains the thought of there being one word–the right word–with which to begin. The sound of clearing its throat, gargling and spitting, casts aspersions on this notion. The careless waste of that first full word on something minor, something about the coffee or the dishes or the cat, further tempers expectations that this is it, this will be the day.

Still. There are other ways to improve. This will be the day, the body says, for more silence. More kindness. More speaking, if it must, with perfect equipoise only on subjects that matter. More avoiding idle banter, and speech for the sake of speech.

The body gets all the way to the bus stop before running into another body it recognizes, and which poses a friendly query about the weather. The body responds automatically with some curious block of sounds that serves a vague performative function. Yes. Hello. Ridiculous weather. Wish it would stop, let us catch our breaths. Are you off to work, too?

So much for precise, judicious speech.

The body picks up the cadence of other bodies over the day. Feels itself pulled along different narrative paths with each interaction, each new body in the throes of its own essential itness. The body responds to other’s needs with increasingly bewildering losses to that break-of-dawn sense of clarity. The body makes mistakes, gets exasperated, and eventually gives over to the tumult of personal speech on well-worn themes once, twice, maybe a dozen times before the end of the working day. Exhilarating, at times. But draining always. A buzz in its thoughts as the body tries to put the fragments together. Where did that little monologue come from? Why so much heat in such an offhand response?

On the bus ride home, the body accounts for its exhaustion input by input: need food, need sleep, need exercise, need contact, need mindless stimulation for a while. It has a book with it. A good one, the kind that expands the inner world. It plays games on the phone instead. In the relative silence of the rush-hour commute it hears itself once more: a distinct being in a crowd of distinct beings, all with distinct hopes and dreams that grew a little clouded over the course of day. The body remembers the urgent promise of its own morning. Resents anything that will disrupt the inner voice again.

But that sense of potential is more unstable this time around. After so much activity in the day, the body is tired, yet still itching to make good on all its scattered intentions and lost opportunities. This is one hour in which the body makes impulsive choices, trying to corral a coherent sense of self through short messages into the void, messages that invariably try too hard, saying at once too little and too much. Minutes pass, and through the magic of wireless communication, response pours in: some sharing credulously in the exercise; but most glibly, in tangents and non sequiturs. Either way, the effort remains Lacanian, even if the body doesn’t know the word “Lacanian”: accompanied, that is, by the sense that, simply in making the attempt to connect, the body has already confirmed its essential distance from other bodies–and as such, has already lost the war.

It’s not all despondent work, though, this business of being a body in a world of bodies, one huge, taut bundle of nerves among 7.3 billion. For instance, the body might have any number of counterpoints at the end of its commute: children, a partner, parents, housemates, pets, an unfinished final season and a dram of the good stuff. Each, in its own way, prompting routines, gestures, capacities for touch that might make the whole day’s efforts seem absurd: How could the body ever have thought that the right word would somehow set all its affairs in order? How laughable! Now it knows better, though. Now it knows that any feeling of home, of belonging, is simply the body at its most immersed in the present. So some nights, the body is lucky; some nights, the body forgets itself.

Some nights, though, the body lies awake for hours.

Thinking: Is my itness enough? Is my itness too much?

Wondering: Which is worse? Or does it matter at all?

6

Walt Whitman was no heir-apparent to his contemporary literary legacy. Rather, like most of us, he struggled to find his place, and the causes to which to dedicate his life. He made no shortage of hostile acquaintances during his early years in journalism, and he loathed the teaching life that had come before. His most famous work, Leaves of Grass (1855), first arose in the wake of media efforts towards a renewed democracy and the abolition of slavery, but the collection didn’t achieve significant commercial success until an 1882 edition. This left Whitman to cope with personal and familial strife, alongside the Civil War, before anything resembling stability took hold of his life. Even then, Whitman kept working that famous set of poems celebrating the human, in body and spirit alike, right until his death, which only gives further credence to two of the poem’s 1855 declarations:

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

That notion of beginning at thirty-seven–at any stage of life, really–gives me the most pause in all Whitman’s work, as I think back to how many tedious times I tried to start the clock anew. How many lives do we live in one life, anyway? How many can we, before the weight of preceding lives–their foibles and routines–invariably creeps in?

In posing this question, I realize I could have quoted from Dashiell Hammett just as easily–specifically, from The Maltese Falcon (1929), when Sam Spade tells a story about a missing man found living another life after a near-fatal encounter with a falling beam:

Flitcraft had been a good citizen amid a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

In both Whitman and Hammett, the body’s contradictions still uphold an underlying order, and for all life’s chaos, this one consistency cannot be escaped: You will remain a creature of habit, no matter how many lives you live. You cannot run away from yourself without taking yourself with you. But so what?

This is a problem, surely (says my Devil’s advocate), only for people who spend too much time inside their heads. What’s so bad about exchanging a friendly word at the bus stop? Speak! And lighten up. Drink more. Drink less. Accept the limits of human interaction and enjoy them for what they are. Soon the strange creature you are will be no more, and then your hands, your heart, will be lost somehow–and sooner than you might imagine–to the quicksand of cultural memory.

What was your name again? Does it matter?

Everything passes. Let this pass, too. Just be, man. Just be.

7

I want to walk with purpose in my adultness. That’s really all this is. At thirty, I feel a calm I haven’t felt before, but it comes with a level of disappointment in every distraction, every word or act that seems to shore up whole wasted hours, wasted days.

No more with these frivolities, I declare (but still, how frivolous I remain: the minor self-pities, the major cultural distractions).

No more with this lack of focus (I hold my fist high, resolute–but still, this very blog post: how many hours from my dissertation?).

No more with the acceptance of mediocrity (although, granted, that acceptance has often served me well, allowing me to forge ahead instead of waiting for perfection).

But then I hear that little voice inside myself–that voice which would so much like to be myself, free from all other dictates in the body, the routines that pay it no heed–and I have to laugh, again, at the sheer audacity, the arrogance of it all.

Me, make me Me! Me, make me Me! Me, make me Me!

Oh, settle down, you.

We’ll get there. We will. And we’ll die in the attempt.

But maybe–if we’re truly lucky–we’ll have made something beautiful, something better along the way.

Analog’s April Issue (and My Story) on Sale March 1

I’m still in dissertation-mode: a peculiar frame of mind in which any unrelated writing thought gets relegated to a subsection of mental notes faintly resembling an asteroid field, bits of fiction and poetry and blog post bumping into and occasionally eradicating one another, waiting to be more fully realized after this chunk of doctoral work is finished… or the next… or maybe the next. However, a colleague in the SF-world just pointed out that Analog‘s April 2016 issue is now out with subscribers, and presumably also hitting the stands.

And my novelette, “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan,” is the lead story for the issue.

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So that’s a pretty swell send-off. I haven’t received my contributor copies yet, but once I do there will be nothing new coming down the pipe. Plenty of my stories reached final consideration, but went no further, in submissions queues this past fall and early winter. Since most of those pieces have now reached market’s end, this means I need to write and send out more stories (and more importantly: I need to make the new stories better than the ones that came before). But first, I need to finish this full draft of the dissertation.

And I’m so close. I really am.

But right now it’s kind of breaking my heart not to be able to write “all the things”. I feel thoroughly strange–thoroughly useless–when I’m not at least trying to refine the themes and stories that matter most to me in fiction form.

That said, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience even this much success to date, and I sure as heck know I’m not entitled to any further on the back of it. I know full well that hard work is par for the course at every step in the writer’s life. So in that spirit, I’d just like to wish my fellow writers and creators the very best in surmounting your own hurdles and in celebrating your own victories, if and when both experiences come your way.

Go get ’em, tigers.

The Rarity & Delight of a Film Like Carol

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I wish Carol had existed when I was a teenager. I almost have trouble believing, now that I’ve seen this deceptively simple romantic thriller, that this film didn’t exist long before 2015–although, of course, when its source material was first published, Hollywood still operated under the Hays Code, so how could it?

Still, when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) at last consummate a relationship delicately built around Carol’s ongoing divorce and custody battle, I found myself cycling through two personal filmic histories–of female sexuality, and of queer experience. In particular, I recalled the trashy CityTV views of my youth, like Porky’s (1981), Basic Instinct (1992), and Wild Things (1998): films all catering to a male view of female sexuality, which just happened to carry me along for the ride. And I remembered, too, the major female-queer films of my adolescence and early twenties: mostly shoddy, over-the-top coming-out stories and larger-than-life sex-capades, with the occasional art-house piece, like Je tu il elle (1975), which offered my first glimpse of female sexuality for female audiences.

And… I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried at a sex scene in a film, but the one in Carol is not transgressive, not sensational, not really about the audience at all. When Carol views Therese in full for the first time, we don’t share Carol’s exact vantage point–nor should we. Instead, the impression director Todd Haynes achieves is that these two lovers are positioning themselves primarily for each other, not the camera. Their sex is not centrally about our titillation, which made me feel acutely the loss of similar representations from what constituted female sexuality in so many films in my youth.

Absent in Carol, too, are any coming-out scenes. Even though we’re dealing with Therese’s first same-sex relationship, ideas about being in love with certain people over other people are far more central to the conversations Therese has with two other men. (Also important here is that neither of these men is oblivious; Therese’s boyfriend accuses her of having a crush on Carol, and her professional mentor, Phil [Nik Pajic], recognizes that a significant connection exists between these two women.)

Indeed, absent in Carol is any push whatsoever for the main characters to adopt labels, because labels don’t matter as much as the question of who loves whom. To this end, Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), knows his wife’s affinities–possibly even knew them when they married–but the jealousy he feels, and the power-plays he enacts, would have existed no matter the sex of the persons Carol chooses over him. Similarly, Carol is permitted to be a complete human being, complex enough that, even though she plays a damned fine older flirt, this performance is routinely disrupted by her other roles–as mother, as friend, as woman in the middle of a divorce. The result is a film that normalizes the end of one relationship and the start of another within a broader web of human experience, even as Carol also plainly highlights the ways in which non-heterosexuality could be punished and pathologized in the 1950s.

This film also deftly illustrates how often female interiority is misunderstood, in movies as in life. For instance, Carol‘s opening scene involves a young man stopping by a club for drinks and recognizing a woman in conversation with another woman across the way. The staging of this scene strongly suggests that two women dining together invites disruption in a way that a man and a woman dining together might not. (A later scene similarly involves a man presuming that a woman dining alone or with another female person must be in want of company, but this second interruption is complicated by a subsequent plot twist.) In private, too, Carol’s flirtations with Therese draw from a spectrum of touch already shared by many female friends–testing perfumes, for instance–but there is nothing predatory about this older/younger, experienced/inexperienced lovers’ dynamic. Indeed, Therese (the younger) has so much agency that she even needs to be dissuaded from feeling responsible for Carol’s more difficult life circumstances.

On a purely aesthetic level, too, Carol is a polished work, with water-stained windows and walls lending a symbolic haze to the otherwise simple elegance and natural grit of life in 1950s America. The slow-building tension, achieved in no small part by an understated soundtrack, similarly invokes the best of Patricia Highsmith’s novels–which makes sense, since the film’s source text, The Price of Salt (1952), is in many ways as much about criminality as her other psychological thrillers. Nevertheless, the major difference between Haynes’ film and Highsmith’s novel seems to lie with how effortlessly he normalizes queer experience. After seeing each character in this film treated as a three-dimensional entity, I find it difficult to grasp why the feat remains so hard for so many in Hollywood.

Indeed, in closing I should add that much of Carol takes place over the Christmas season, which only makes sense, considering all that this holiday has to say about the importance of community to our sense of self, and the perceived universality of seeking out intimate connections with our fellow human beings. To this end, Carol herself, sophisticated in both beauty and estrangement, is every bit the sort of song her name invokes: familiar, vaguely timeless, and bearing the promise of a love that need not ever be fully explained, so long as it flourishes at all.

How easy the feat seems, through such a generous lens.

Storytelling, Two Ways: Star Wars & The Hateful Eight

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A writer owes it to herself to watch Quentin Tarantino films. Although the level of violence might prove unpalatable for some, his stories are always meditations–playful, sly, ambivalent, frustrating–on the nature of stories themselves. Is life coherent? Do the stories we tell ourselves matter? Can they survive collision with other people’s tales, or with broader cultural narratives? Is narrative itself a serious business, always to be presented from a distance that implies authorial objectivity? Or is the author always a deceiver, a trickster god? And if the latter, does honesty about authorial deceit heighten or diminish the tale at hand?

Watching The Hateful Eight the day after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was especially reminded of the mainstream narrative devices that Tarantino’s films upset. Absent in most of his work is the reassuring linearity of cause and effect, or any reason to believe that having grand hopes and dreams will guarantee at least an opportunity for their fruition. Gone, too, is the treatment of death as simple background noise (e.g. in a mass of unnamed characters murdered at a distance) or inherent tragedy (e.g. when the dying person matters to someone else in the film or the audience). But more than anything, gone is a form of visual storytelling that relies on perfect audience trust in the film’s narrator–and in its place arises a form of visual storytelling that trusts its audience almost too much instead.

Granted, the slyness of Tarantino’s visual storytelling is easily overlooked, because his scripts are joys unto themselves, famous for vivid speeches and conversations and the slow-building, nail-biting tensions they both support. Similarly, his violence is explicit and excessive in both image and dialogue, so it’s quite natural that the extremes of his cinematography and language would come first to mind when thinking about his style. Yes, a seasoned Tarantino fan knows to expect someone, at some point, to be hidden off-screen in one of his films, but other gestures are trickier to catch, and yet wiser (if caught) in what they say about Tarantino’s sense of play. 

The Hateful Eight, for instance, opens with a slow pan out from a snow-capped Christ-on-a-cross, while credits roll and the first of the inestimable Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack establishes a grim, foreboding mood for this film about post-Civil War travellers–bounty hunters, murderers, representatives of the law, old soldiers, and enigmas–gathered in an isolated pit-stop to wait out a blizzard. Initially, I suspected there was a thematic meaning for this image, a question dangling over the film as a whole: Is this a story about suffering or redemption? Maybe both?

But at a critical chapter in the story–and I mean, literally, “chapter”, because the film is broken into six explicitly named components, with an off-screen narrator recapping the story after the intermission following Chapter Three–I realized that the cross serves just as much as a visual pun. When it reappears in Chapter Five, it is at the “crux” of the film, a crossroads between two different story-lines, the latter of which Tarantino has us backtrack through time to experience firsthand. This maneuver is delicate, and almost always backfires when used as a “gotcha” moment for the audience, who didn’t have any choice but to go along with the narrator’s established world in the first place. Here, though, our amicable voice-over at the start of Chapter Four has already established that things aren’t exactly as they appear, and that our storyteller cannot be completely trusted. Consequently, viewers are firmly “in” on these narrative disruptions by the time a major one appears.

In similar fashion, the distinctness of Tarantino’s disruptions also comes from how much he still loves the storytelling conventions his writing upsets, and how much he recognizes that his audience loves them, too. Inglourious Basterds (2009), for instance, is wholeheartedly aware of Hollywood’s fetishization of WWII and the Holocaust, as well as filmic histories of national propaganda, but Tarantino does not try to shame his viewers for being party to both. Rather, he puts the two histories in conversation and beckons us to peer through the keyhole, to see what can be made of them now. Later, he even encourages us to take a sick kind of pleasure from extreme-to-the-point-of-absurdity plot devices directly inspired by the propaganda films we’re simultaneously encouraged to despise. This pointed ambivalence means that even when we have a clear “bad guy” on screen, the story holds out for greater complexity.

Django Unchained (2012) is likewise clear about its context and source material, and just as nuanced in its use of both. Arising at a time when Hollywood slave narratives often allowed viewers to observe some of the horror of slavery as entertainment–discomfited in the moment, maybe, but ultimately reassured by “how far we’ve come”, Django instead draws in equal parts from blaxploitation cinema and the spaghetti western to create a tale that upsets and romanticizes this history in very different, more complicated and subversive ways. For all that some critics have claimed that Django’s ultimate ride into the sunset is just another comforting fantasy for white viewers, something that somehow makes all preceding depravity “okay”, I think such a reading is hogwash: White slavers and saviours alike die brutally in this film, and this is the only way in which that fantasy of perfect, romantic triumph over the monstrosity of slavery becomes attainable. Not exactly reassuring fare.

So why does this level of pointed moral ambivalence sit so well with me, as both viewer and writer? Precisely because–for Tarantino–it seems to arise from a place of genuine compassion for the complexity of human experience and individual narratives. In this, The Force Awakens also comes close to breaking from the all-too-reassuring good-guy/bad-guy division: defecting storm troopers, women in the ranks of the First Order (the Empire’s replacement), an antagonist driven more by teen angst than genuine evil. But there’s a limit to how much a feel-good, merchandise-driven filmic enterprise can keel towards uncertainty in character portrayals, so Abrams also throws in clear Nazi allusions for good measure, and establishes so disparate a range of possible actions between the Rebellion and First Order as to make any individual character’s moral “grey area” only tolerable as a precursor to (inevitable) redemption.

Meanwhile, Tarantino’s nasty, isolated 19th-century America is nothing if not steeped in moral complications, which bleed into the very narrative forms and filmic histories at play–and yet, there is still so much to enjoy about the telling. This, I suspect, is because Tarantino recognizes that many of his viewers truly love the problematic Westerns and Civil War histories that inspire this tale. Thus, even when The Hateful Eight challenges audiences to think critically about how these cultural narratives work together, Tarantino still invites us to enjoy them for what they might have meant to us at different stages in our lives. Amid a social discourse that often appeals to strict binaries–that wants us to cut all ties, past and present alike, with any media the moment it becomes tethered to a problematic narrative–it is possible, Tarantino argues, to both bear the social burden of a given story’s awful history and still acknowledge how that same history has played less awful roles in our individual lives.

The Hateful Eight is thus little different from its predecessors in its use of history, except that its filmic nods also include our love of celebrity culture, which Tarantino toys with by foregrounding his star-studded cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, whose face opens the main body of the film in a way clearly intended to establish that we’re back on Tarantino’s seasoned turf. However, unlike J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which uses an extreme level of plot and setting familiarity either as a “palate cleanser” or because nostalgia was the safe, mass-market bet, familiarity is by no means to be confused with likability in a Tarantino film. Indeed, Tarantino often flips the script for past actors in his films, shifting their roles from “bad guys” in one film to “heroes” in the next. Thus, as the characters in The Hateful Eight pile up, the initial stories they’ve told each other also increase in moral ambiguity. Are any of our main characters “good guys”? Or is Tarantino nudging us to consider other reasons for why we ally ourselves with different people in different moments? Do we as viewers simply want–even need–someone, anyone to survive, even if all options truly are the most hateful human beings?

Another commonality in Tarantino’s scripts is claustrophobia: close-quarter confrontations that can switch in a pinch from idle to life-or-death negotiation; heartfelt life stories that mean nothing to the person with the gun who enters right after their telling; a search for moral high ground that leaves every participant rooting about in the muck. But The Hateful Eight is also filled with arresting visual reprieves–horses straining through the snow in slow-motion; Jackson speaking in slow-motion while another character, played by Walton Goggins (happily in a more prominent role!), replies at normal speed. These storytelling moments highlight the struggle experienced by every beast in this film: the desire to persevere, and if possible, to find some sense of meaning in the effort, even when the content of each persevering life seems more putrid than the last.

Unsurprisingly, then, if there is any thematic clarity to be found in the pursuits of all these wretched, angry, violent, tribalist people, it lies with one recurring image in the film: the “Lincoln letter” that Jackson’s character carries; a letter that brings delight to one character, elicits spite from another, serves to protect another, and meets with incredulity and mockery from others still. This letter arises near the opening of the film, is mentioned again near the middle, and reappears at the very end–a clear and pressing motif. I cannot discuss its importance without spoiling a valuable twist, but its existence–an explicit written narrative within a larger narrative–and its varied uses affirm for me the importance of watching Tarantino as a writer.

Certainly, all will be struck by different aspects of this film, but as I reflect on the profound differences between the storytelling choices in Star Wars and The Hateful Eight, I cannot rightly imagine the writer who could watch the latter and not emerge with similar questions about what a “real” story looks like, what an “honest” narrator looks like, and whether or not she, too, can confront the spectre of human erraticism with even 1/10th Tarantino willingness to play–joyously, lovingly, teasingly–with some of our culture’s most sacred cows. For Abrams’ The Force Awakens, a belief in internal consistency and an expectation of external destiny drives an immense amount of audience comfort and pleasure from the return to one well-travelled form. But for me, the real “palate cleanser” came from next viewing a Tarantino film, and being reminded that it is indeed possible to celebrate mainstream culture’s greatest hits while also holding those same narratives to account for what they say–and don’t say–about the intricacies of human life.

The Conundrum of the Nasty Protagonist

I recently submitted a story with a nasty protagonist: a character who starts out as the focus of reader sympathy, but who goes on to do terrible things that affirm something unconscionably ugly about him. A few days later, I found myself writing another nasty protagonist, although this one’s ugliness appears nearer the beginning, and in consequence, I’m struggling with where to take the story next. Amid this struggle, I’ve come to realize how tricky, in general, is the case of the nasty protagonist.

Neither piece, I should add, started with a nasty protagonist in mind. The first story began with two what-ifs: What if a child grew up thinking his best friend had a miraculous and secret gift? And what if the child’s fixation over his friend’s gift masked (even to himself) the existence of his own? The second arose from idle curiosity about how to wring something new and exciting from that old fantasy trope, the spiritual medium.

In the first story, the character arc relies on an early expectation of reader sympathy, and offers a level of horror after the reader realizes where their sympathy has brought them: to recognition of the ongoing humanity even of someone who has done a truly terrible thing. This school of nastiness encompasses a wide range of mainstream media figures: Aileen Wuornos as depicted in Monster (2003); one or two characters (depending on your interpretation) in We Need To Talk About Kevin (book 2003, movie 2011); Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), Walter White from Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

The fact that the character in my story does something truly awful, something that makes liberal thinkers agonize between a desire for restorative justice and a desire to see certain crimes met with a stronger criminal court response, is definitely going to make the story a hard sell. However, I finished it even after the appearance of a nasty protagonist precisely because this tension made me uncomfortable; because I wanted to see if reconciliation between those competing social drives was possible, even just in the abstract realm of fiction.

In the second case, I’m trying to figure out where to go with a character who starts out quite nasty. To turn him “good” somehow feels a cheat, because 1) he is well past redemption in one very important way, 2) I don’t want any moments of “goodness” to be read as an excuse for his heinous acts, and 3) I suspect the first story takes the more useful approach for that kind of message: starting with someone’s basic humanity and gradually introducing their fall in the “there but for the grace of [X] go I” category. Alternatives to this character arc, however, are few–and it occurs to me, too, that the most common arc for these characters is an over-the-top exaltation of awfulness. Think Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (book 1991; movie 2000), Jordan Belfort as depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (1999-2007), Francis Underwood in House of Cards (2013-). Sure, these protagonists have complex characters, but their nastiness remains front-and-centre.

There are, of course, exceptions, and these exceptions promote a different sort of social discourse. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1866) begins with a twisted desire to prove he has the sort of ruthlessness needed to become a great leader, but after he murders an older woman just to see if he can, his conscience gradually eats him up inside, and in a Siberian penal colony at the end, he is formed by the love of a woman and the grace of his faith into a figure worthy of redemption. Conversely, Alex in Clockwork Orange (book 1962; movie 1971) begins as a character who delights in nights committing “ultraviolence”, who rapes and beats and murders, but it is the state’s ultimate recourse–to wholly destroy Alex’s ability to tolerate any violence whatsoever–that readers and viewers are challenged to see as a violent act in its own right.

Now, I have no interest in glorifying the terrible things done by the protagonist in the second story; they are necessary components of his backstory, which forms the crux of the narrative’s present action, but they are also acts of violence that, unlike the violence committed by all the aforementioned persons, go beyond the pale of societal toleration. There’s a part of us–the part that grows frustrated with the sluggish pace and petty concerns of the world–that gladly welcomes the existence of the Judge Holdens and the Dexters and the Hannibals in our media: highly intelligent people who have established their own codes of conduct to rise above the tedium of human life. We are drawn to these characters, protagonists or otherwise, because they offer a kind of freedom from societal norms–however twisted, however wrong, however unattainable (we also hope) because of the viewer’s conscience. But even these escapist fantasies have their limits, and my nasty protagonist has passed a particularly crucial one.

Nonetheless, a protagonist cannot be static; the reader needs to invest in the protagonist’s perspective and achieve some measure of improved knowledge about them over the course of the story. The fact that my nasty protagonist is dead rather limits these options: the redemption narrative will always feel unearned in a modern context, and there is no motivation for transformation that would feel like anything but a cop-out if achieved.

What perhaps remains is a trickier narrative maneuver: using the protagonist not to further his own growth, but the growth of a secondary character–the spiritual medium who meets him on his afterlife turf. This is a tough gambit, though, because then I have to justify not telling the story from the spiritual medium’s perspective from the outset. What value might possibly be added for the reader by perceiving another character’s growth through the eyes of a particularly nasty spirit?

The answer to this, I suspect, will come from better understanding why I’ve been drawn to stories with nasty protagonists in the first place. I know that, in some way, my choice of protagonist is a reflection of core anxieties about myself, the author–the same way that the passivity and cowardice of other protagonists this year also reflected fears and angers held towards myself, and pursuant to my conduct in the world. These reflections aren’t 1:1, of course; I pride myself on starting stories with specific sentiments of great urgency to me, then finding wholly different forms in which to more safely explore them. The last story, for instance, was clearly driven in part by the difficulty of hanging two major social convictions against one another: the struggle, on my part, to establish a more coherent approach to social justice.

But the current story? This one hasn’t quite found its motivation yet. I have a nasty protagonist–who is not to be exalted, not to be redeemed, but still requires momentum–and an overdone fantasy trope I wish to make new. And now I also have a whole other archetype–the monstrous protagonist–to subvert as well. I don’t know how I will yet–I don’t know what I’m trying to negotiate in myself, as in this story–but damned if that sense of mystery isn’t the fun of being a writer at all.

 

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